While sous vide machines can be pricey, there a lot of ways you can execute the technique without spending a ton of money. At its most basic level, sous vide is still a simple process of cooking sealed food in heated water, so there are options for everyone's price level.
Don't let the price of certain sous vide machines sway you from the technique altogether. It's the goal of this site to make sous vide more accessible and this set-up is perfect for it. With a closed beer cooler, your water will maintain its temperature for a quite a long time with minimal monitoring.
While not ideal for cooks longer than two hours, a cooler is actually a great insulator and will keep water under 160F more stable than you think. The hot tap water from most sinks can reach up to 140F, but make sure to give your water a buffer by heating your water a few degrees above your target temperature. Kenji Lopez found that the water inside the cooler will lose around 1 degree per hour when it's at the 140-150F range. I have found I lost a little more than that per hour, so keep an eye hot and just in case, have some hot water ready.
Keep in mind that the more water you use, the more stable your water temperature will be. Pair this with a few Ziploc bags and a digital waterproof thermometer and you should be good to go! Chicken, fish, duck breast, steak and eggs would all be good things to try!
Another type of sous vide cooking machine is the DorkFood Temperature controller, which keeps water at its desired temperature by turning on a heating appliance on and off. Paired with a simple rice cooker or crock pot, the DorkFood Temperature Controller almost instantly approximates high-end sous vide machines. It works just like a higher end SousVide Surpreme machine that monitors the water temperature and heats water as needed to maintain an optimal temperature.
Interestingly enough, the cooking appliance you hook the DorkFood up to needs to be basic. Higher-end rice cookers or crockpots with digital settings or timers won't work with its on/off mechanism. Luckily for you, a highly rated on/off Aroma 3 Cup Rice Cooker is only $16 dollars on Amazon.
While not as exact as more expensive versions of sous vide cooking, outside of poached eggs, the DorkFood should be able to perfectly cook most things. Another added bonus of this method is that its well-suited for longer cooks, as the covered lid keeps water from excessively evaporating away. For people who would want to throw in some chicken thighs, pork, or brisket in the morning and come home from work to a perfectly cooked dinner, the DorkFood might be even better for you than the SideKIC mentioned below.
While sous vide machines have become more and more affordable in recent years, many models are still out of the price range for a lot of people. At the moment, the ICA Kitchen SideKIC is the cheapest water immersion circulator, which means that water is pumped within a container of your choosing and ensures an exact heat distribution. Reviewers have found that temperature variation did not exceed 0.7F, which puts it on the level of much, much more expensive machines. However, despite all its positives, there are still two small caveats that need to be mentioned.
The machine operates at a very specific water level range of .75 inches, meaning that the machine's pump will not be able to circulate water if the container is filled outside of this level. As a result, it will be more challenging to use during cooks longer than a few hours as evaporation will lower the water level. Other machines such as the Polyscience circulators will have a much higher range of approximately 4-5 inches. Some folks have figured out that covering the open areas with plastic wrap or styrofoam can dramatically reduce the rate of evaporation.
Another downside is that the machine has weaker water heater when compared to more expensive models, so water takes a little longer to get to its needed temperature. Still, it is easy to get around this by using pre-heated water or simply warm tap water. Lastly, this machine is frequently sold out on Amazon, so keep an eye out.
For people who know they are going to be serious about sous vide, but are still looking to save a few dollars, the Polyscience Creative Series is the best option available. It is cheaper than the professional Polyscience versions used at high-end restaurants, but is made by the same brand and can also handle multiple day cooks with minimal supervision. The only major difference between the Creative and the higher-end Professional model is that the Professional is designed to be used 24/7.
Some might wonder why I wouldn't reccomend an all-in-one system like the SousVide surpreme, especially given that the SousVide Surpreme is about $75 dollars cheaper. While not everyone will agree, I think that after a few hundred dollars price point, it is worthwhile to spend the extra money for an immersion circulator. In addiition to maintaining a better temperature distribution, its ability to be used with any large container dramatically increases its flexibility and also makes it much easier to store or transport.
Plus, if you purchase it at Williams Sonoma, they will send you a free 20 liter polycarbonate container as a free gift that is perfect for large-scale cooks.